Thursday, December 18, 2008

Poetry Energy Drink 2008

As the year grows short, and I get ready to head on Friday morning to the east coast and my annual winter holiday r and r in a place where there really is a winter, I thought I’d put up my own somewhat alternative version of the Best Of and Worst Of lists that one sees all over the place this time of year. This is my list of books of poetry that I read in 2008 that gave me energy for my own writing.

That’s somewhat different than the BO/WO (best odor/worst odor) list. I’m talking about books of poems that, when reading them, I feel energized about writing poems again, eager both to read the books but also to get back to my own work. Not every book I loved or liked this past year had that effect. Kristin Prevallet’s [I, Afterlife] [Essays in Mourning Time], one of the most powerful books of poems I read this past year, didn’t hurry me back to my own poetry. Instead it left me more drained, sad, stunned, and at moments awed. It did drive me eventually to write about it, but it didn’t help me write any poetry at all.

So here’s a list of poetry energy drink books for me in a year when I didn’t get to read nearly as much poetry as I would have liked. They weren’t all published in 2008, and for the most part I’ve put them in no particular order.

C.A. Conrad, Deviant Propulsion
For me, the highest energy drink poetry of the past year. Generous, furious, loving, and holding nothing back. I know that some people find CA’s online personality a bit over the top at times, but here that abrasiveness turns into an open and vulnerable boldness that for me made language seem full of possibility, even as there wasn’t anything particularly innovative about his use of it other than the display of his own original and inspiring character.

Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness
I love this book even if I did blurb it. Its co-written nature is no impediment to its churning, rollicking language. In fact just the opposite. As a collection it’s a bit shapeless perhaps, but it seems to be part of the nature of a co-written project not to have a conventional developmental arc, and each piece taken on its own terms is lively and biting. I’m teaching this book in the spring and my students are going to love it too.

Rod Smith, Deed
Am I the only one who thinks this book is a more palatable, smoother Rod Smith, full of gentle chuckles and lyrical sadness? Not lesser, by any means, just less abrasive and disruptive, though none of his always keen social insight has been sacrificed. A sort of Very Fine Rod Smith. The sense of breath and line is remarkable. A longtime close friend, he and his work have always had the same effect on me: I’m going to write poems as good as yours some time, pal, you got that straight?

Sandra Simonds, Warsaw Bikini
Just finished reading this one a few days ago and it prompted the idea of this post, not to mention a couple of pages on the long poem I’m currently writing. A zany, absolutely contemporary surrrealism with a big reach on history and global politics and a whole lotta personality. A bit first bookish in its enthusiasm maybe, but thrilling.

Gary Sullivan, Ppl in a Depot
Sullivan is the funniest British satirist ever to hail from Minneapolis, if that’s where he hails from. But who cares where he hails from? These poetic plays skewer everyone with a rigorous ruthlessness, and in so doing create an unforgettable picture of contemporary New York and arts culture and its vexed relationship to worldscale politics.

Joanne Kyger, About Now: Collected Poems. As an energy drink for me, these poems were a mixed medicine. Sometimes I could go right from them to my own writing. Other times I’d say “Well I’ll never be able to do anything remotely like that” and have to get drunk.

K. Silem Mohammad, Breathalyzer
If Deer Head Nation is a genuinely great book, this one is more barreling, high energy, and brutal, even though it’s a little less large and sprawling in vision. When I could stop laughing, I could start writing.

Gunnar Bjorling, You Go the Words
Bjorling, a Finnish-Swedish Modernist (read the introduction to the book for the politics at stake in that term), had this collection, the last of his original books, translated into English by Frederik Hertzberg and published in this country by Action Books. His writing here made me think a bit of P. Inman, even as Bjorling is more melancholy and imagistic. But the surprising twists of phrase and unexpected word combinations in an understated, minimal approach reminded me of the severity and extremism of Inman’s work. For every word Bjorling writes, I can write ten. More’s the pity for anybody who reads what I write.

Edwin Torres, The PoPedology of an Ambient Language
Typography games, verbal games, spacing games, a largeness of vision and a questioning of any notion of the regular. How does Edwin do all these things? Anybody know? Just by creating it? Can I try it too? No? Can I just keep writing anyway?

Dichten No. 10: 16 New German Poets
A politicized Surrealism on some new and very bad acid? Sort of. With some instances of distorted lyrical beauty thrown in? I don’t feel I have an adequate description of these poets representing new directions in German poetry, but they sure sent me scrambling for my pen.

Skip Fox, For To
I can’t be the only one who received a copy of this book in the mail unexpectedly. Did you? A big sprawling awkward mess of a book. Maybe the most Olson influenced work I’ve read in a while, with some grumpy fury thrown in. Probably best read by those who have empathy for his odd cultural group, but given that, a good dose of Aging-Hetero-White-Male-on-the-Fringe for what ails you. Believe me, I know what he’s talking about.

Lee Ann Brown, The Sleep that Changed Everything
This book was published a few years back, but anything that came out about the time I moved to California risked getting thrown on the back burner. But I finally got to it. Love the Sterling Brown influenced ballads, but it’s the poems with a more open, graceful, leaping syntax that had something to say to my own pen.

Ariana Reines, Coeur-de-Lion
There’s not much avant garde about this book, New Narrative or not, whatever Johannes Gorannson says. But honest, energetic, thrilling, risky, yes. Willing to expose, even champion, the most vulnerable spots, yes. Makes me determined to be less guarded in my writing, that’s for sure.

Linda Russo, Mirth
Sometimes I need to read a smart book of poems. Anybody remember smart? This is one of those books. A perceptive and very contemporary feminist take on issues of culture and language. I had to think before I could write, but I wanted to do both.

Stan Apps, Info Ration
Stan, my friend, you’re wack. But it’s a good wack. Or no, an evil wack. A beyond good and evil wack? Something like that, with a dose of capitalism to boot. Also, though you’re trying to hide it sometimes with the flat surfaces of these poems, I have this sneaking feeling that you have Something To Say.

Colin Smith, 8 by 8 by 7
The toughest, most painful book of the year for me. Shocking and hilarious and deadly. The quips will destroy you, and I mean that.

Then, I’m embarrassed to say, here’s a brief list of books I haven’t read yet but want to, soon. They’re either already on my desk or going to be there the moment I can grab a copy:

Kevin Davies, The Golden Age of Paraphernalia
Nada Gordon, Folly
Stephanie Young, Picture Palace
Cathy Eisenhower, Clearing Without Reversal
Stephen Collis, The Commons

And since I’m always in need of more books to give me energy, anybody out there have any suggestions? Given that I live in southern California, I’m almost certain to be missing everything worthwhile, so all thoughts are welcome.

And if I don’t have time to post again for a couple weeks, which I may or may not, I hope you have an enjoyable holiday season, and that if you have a job, of whatever kind, you’re able to hang onto it, and that if you’re searching for one you find it. And most of all I hope that we remember that we’re living in a world full of desperate need and that all of us can try, in some small way, to do something about it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Thinking Again: Original Mission Statement

In June 2006 I began the notebook of reflections that eventually turned into this blog. At the time I had no intention of doing a blog. In fact the original goal of the notebook had to do with processes of thinking on my part that were perhaps best left as private reflections.

Living in North County San Diego, having few people to discuss poetry with after years of constant conversation in Washington, DC, I began to be more attracted to the idea of creating a blog that I could use as a forum for conversation and as a way for me to generate writing. And I feel like it has been a helpful experience for me.

Below, I’m pasting the first notebook entry, from June 13, 2006. Obviously, this blog has become something very different than the notebook I was imagining at the time, and this piece wasn’t written with the idea of putting it online. Nonetheless I think this first entry still captures some of the spirit of what I’ve been trying to explore in this blog: a way of thinking.


Imagine for a moment a perfect society. Then imagine what would be wrong with it.

Many discussions of poetry and the world come out of the first of these two possibilities, but many less out of the second. The first appeals to hopefulness, to a desire for justice. The second appeals mainly to shortcomings in trying to understand what it is that’s being hoped for. A poetics of complicity and the failure (or refusal) to understand.

What does one say about the failure or refusal of understanding in the lives of those who seem committed to understanding?

One could write a whole lifetime of poems without ever raising that question. There is after all a whole world outside ourselves, beyond what we have done, and one could comment about it with righteous anger, genuine hurt, or precise analysis, inexhaustibly. There will never not be something to be angry about, and rightly angry as well. There will never not be something to expose, and rightly expose.

But what kind of poetry could emerge from the attempt to engage with what the writer doesn’t understand? Would it be simply an attempt to understand, one more way to replace the failure to understand with a process of understanding? Would it simply be a display of confusion? How to write about not understanding in a way that is neither an attempt to turn it into understanding or an attempt to acknowledge, expose, or even celebrate misunderstanding?

What it would it mean to write a poem that attempts to engage, but not to resolve, the problem of what it means to not understand? Especially if one really does (but also does not) understand many things.

Further, why write about what’s not understood? Maybe this: to return us to a world that’s larger than human understanding. I do not necessarily mean by this anything having to do with any notion of god.

That the world has to be larger than what we know of it sometimes seems to me the only thing left to hope and work for.

And so this notebook: an attempt to explore what I don’t understand.

Mark Wallace Never Commits Himself? Part Four: Thinking the Fray

Hey Joe:

Your response here definitely helps move this discussion in the direction of what Thinking Again is about, and here’s why: we need to Think Again about your vision of the culture of poetics.

You characterize me as “above the fray.” The culture of poetics, I guess, is the fray. Then, quoting Dorn, you seem to suggest that there are two main moves that one can make in the fray: disagreement/debate, or blind obedience.

Let’s see what’s wrong with these ideas.

It’s funny to quote, but here goes. Fray:
1. a fight, battle, or skirmish.
2. a competition or contest, esp. in sports.
3. a noisy quarrel or brawl.

In other words, your concept of the culture of poetics is that it’s a kind of war, with different groups struggling for supremacy. At times it may be closer to sport, a ritualized and refereed game in which in theory no one gets hurt, but at times the stakes are far more serious. Also, the institutional framework of the sporting event perhaps represents the dangers of conformity, which are best replaced by the unregulated bar room brawl. And apparently there are two main moves one can make in this brawl: fight, or succumb.

That seems to me frankly a sad view of what poetics, and the poets who engage in it, are up to. And despite your wish to get gender out of the picture, it’s a view that remains immersed in male warrior culture, which it takes to be simply the way the world is. There’s a working class liberating edge to the idea of the barroom fray, I can grant, but it’s still obviously male, and only liberating to those who feel liberated by a gloves-off fight, which would be, of course, fighters. And yes, women hit each other too sometimes, but I don’t think that fact makes the fist fight an ungendered activity. And your reference, by the way, to “precious sensibilities” feminizes emotion in a troubling way: Masculine Idea and Feminine Emotion. You might want to rethink the relationship between ideas and emotions.

While debate is important, and the role it plays in resistance can be crucial, it’s hardly the only reason for having a conversation about poetry, and it’s hardly the only way to talk to other people about it. I wonder how many poets would not be interested in poetry at all if poetry were nothing more than a debate involving nothing more than assertions made for reasons of seizing power of some kind or other. Still, nowhere in anything I have said have I rejected the idea that debate and dissent have value. But it’s true, there are many current debates about poetry which I find deeply uninteresting, with people endlessly asserting cliched positions that it seems very tiresome to refute and refute and refute again. I’ve been interested, on this blog, in trying to come to a greater level of understanding about issues that are on my mind. The goal is to achieve a kind of insight, maybe even a greater level of wisdom, and certainly I’ve been trying to look past typical poetry world debates to find some type of connection among positions that often think of themselves purely as opposites. For instance, my post on the notion of self in poetry was designed to point out that people who assert the value of personal narrative poetry and people who reject the idea of the personal in poetry share one thing in common: they actually don’t have much idea of what this self is that they’re trying either to assert or reject.

So yes, on most of the posts here on Thinking Again I muse, and think through problems that are on my mind. The posts show the process of what it means to think through something. I come to many conclusions, something you seem not to have noticed, and many of the musings contain implicit critiques of other positions, which you also seem not to have noticed. But I’m also using the blog as a forum for conversation and I’m often trying to find out what other people think. Isn’t that funny, that I’m actually curious what other people are thinking instead of only wanting to know how they respond to my own ideas?

Even though my blog is something I use to create conversation, that doesn’t mean that I think the culture of poetics is a conversation any more than it’s a fray. It’s too divisive to be called a conversation, too generative and sustaining to be called a fray. It can be one or the other at times, or both, and many other things as well. There can be as many different types of exchanges as people can invent. People involved in the culture of poetics can be mean-spirited or generous, power hungry or self-deprecating, funny or long winded and dull. Much of the time—like in most of this discussion—they have a poor conception of who they’re talking to. Maybe speech act theory would be helpful in analyzing the way talk develops in the culture of poetics. I’ve written about this subject before in my essay “Haze,” which among other things discusses the role that misunderstanding plays in all attempts at understanding.

As to your assertion that poetry can take on important issues in the world, whoever said it couldn’t? I can’t think of a single poet who has ever made such a point. In order for a debate to exist, they’re actually have to be two sides.

So while we may disagree, I disagree with your interpretation of what we disagree about.

To sum up: 1) Your comments about my blog are based on a misunderstanding of what I’m doing and why. 2) Although it embarrasses me to say it, I am and always have been contentious, both in writing and in person, at work and in my private life. I’m a man who likes nothing better than a stupid argument like this one, and therefore I spend a lot of time trying not to give in to that pathetic, needy tendency, the feeling that nothing real is happening unless some guy is throwing punches, verbal or otherwise. Therefore 3) your charge that I’m afraid to state my opinions, or perhaps don’t have any, is ludicrous. In fact, and I mean this quite seriously, I challenge you to find a single thing regarding poetry about which I will not state my opinion.

That’s all I have to say on this subject. If you’d like the final word, please send another post and I’ll put it up. I’ve appreciated your willingness to make public your claim that I refuse to take stands in public, and I appreciate your willingness to hear my public answer to your criticism. I’m prepared at any point to shake hands and move forward.

All best,


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mark Wallace Never Commits Himself? Part Three: Above the Fray

Joe Safdie writes:


Thanks for this long and thoughtful post; I guess we'll see how large the poetic blogosphere attention span really is.

Let's take it, as they say, point-by-point. I don't really want to talk more about your comment about Kenny's post, because frankly, even after your explanation of it, I still don't understand it. Playful is always good, to my mind, but we disagree about the word "relevant" - I think poetry can still be relevant . . . and current, and topical, and pointed, and political. And playful. And I think poetry that does all that would be highly relevant. Maybe we can get into cases a bit later on. (By the way, Kenny looks a lot like me in that video - does he, really?)

In fact, the only reason I mentioned that comment at all was because I thought it represented a tendency I've observed in your blog writing (whether your own or in comments): that is, you go all around the subject - you summarize the various perspectives that might possibly be entertained about whatever issue you're writing about without ever really adopting any of those perspectives: instead, you're "above the fray." That might be one way of defining what "thinking through" an issue is - and if that, and that alone, is the intention of your posts on this blog, then we can stop the conversation right here - my bad.

But thinking, for me, also includes judgment and decision . . . and, yes, assertion. I think it's possible to be assertive without descending into calcified clichés. Can't someone assert his or her opinion about poetic matters without intimating that the people who don't agree suck? I agree that any assertion is a "questionable half-truth," as you have it, merely a way station along the road. But a thoughtful or provocative one might provide an occasion for refreshment, for nourishment, for conversation - for thinking - before setting off again. In the best of circumstances, that's what any poetic assertion or manifesto has always done: "make it new"; "the musical phrase, not the metronome"; get the breath in; call the blonde (not LeRoi); fishes and bicycles.

Boring is boring is boring, Mark, but the mere act of debate, or asserting claims and counter-claims, can never be boring in and of itself: it's the foundation of argument. I don't know if you ever have to teach argument, but I have to teach plenty, and I take things like logical fallacies and evidence and persuasive rhetoric seriously, as building blocks to thought. And the last I heard, poets can still think, although I wouldn't want to make that universal.

And yet, we're living in an inconvenient time for that to be true. I've always valued satire and sarcasm and harsh irony - modes of implicit judgment, by the way - as valuable poetic techniques, but as I wrote to you back-channel, it seems as if cultural relativism (or, sigh, "political correctness") is the only game in town these days, so that anyone who's alarming or provocative or insinuating is immediately guilty of insulting somebody's precious sensibilities (I'd like to keep gender out of this, by the way - I'm sure you're right that men exhibit more jackass behavior on blogs and listservs than women, but surely both sexes are capable of it).

Other people will obviously have to be the judge of this, but as a careful writer, I always try to avoid clichés and conventions and calcified thought - wouldn't any writer worth his or her salt do the same? (Actually, I'm a fan of the outrageous, which is one reason why I like Nada's writing so much.) But even if your characterization of my writing as "old school, sixties assertive leftist reportage" is completely off base, there IS one thing that marks me as thoroughly 20th century and a member of the derriere-garde - and it gets back to that idea of relevance, or reference - I like it. I dig it. I think poets can, and should be, "the antennae of the race," and also be investigative journalists, as Ed Sanders argued in an essay 30 years ago. I most value the poets who have been. (And by the way, I've liked, a lot, all the posts of Mark Nowak and Linh Dinh that I've seen on the Harriet Blog.)

Language poetry as "challenging assumptions"? Please. "Moral didacticism"? The most recent example of that I know is your post here, even if I was afraid of the word "moral," which I'm not. "Limitations of the language"? Possibly, if one indulged in revolutionary clichés of one sort or another, but I've already said that any serious writer can't do that.

So where does that leave us in this Southern California wasteland? I've already told you that some of the language in my first e-mail to you was not only intemperate, but contemptible (and if you think that was contemptible, you should have seen what I said about Ron Silliman on Patrick Herron's listserv six months ago). But the fact remains that you and I have serious differences about what poetry can and should be. And I think that's great - I think people SHOULD have these differences, and talk them out, exactly as you've given me the opportunity to do here.

Anybody who knows anything about me knows that Ed Dorn was an important friend and influence on my life. One of his pieces in Abhorrences is called "The Protestant View" -

that eternal dissent
and the ravages
of faction are preferable
to the voluntary
servitude of blind

I'm Jewish, but I agree with this pro-TEST-ant view, and always will. And what I most value is clever, witty, intelligent, gorgeous and graceful writing that somehow asserts something . . . and I always will.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mark Wallace Never Commits Himself? Part Two

Hey Joe:

First, thanks for reading my blog and other comments and taking them seriously enough to be irritated. On one level, I do appreciate it: us bloggers have to take the readers we can get. I wish that I could appreciate you reading it well, but sadly I don’t think you’ve done that.

Re my two-line response on Harriet that prompted your irritation, it’s true that it was playful, not exactly the developed poetic “stance” that you seem to wish it had been. A lot of people make playful blog comments, and it’s worth trying some time if taking a stance ever gets dull for you. But you seem to have missed that it was also serious. That could be partly my fault because, simultaneously, I was responding to something happening on Nada Gordon’s blog, which was a videotaped bar discussion between Kasey and Kenny on the concept of “relevance.” I’ve critiqued the concept of “relevance” on my blog before, and in fact you commented on that particular blog post. I think Kenny’s concept of relevance is weak, and on Kenny’s post I was making that point, albeit in an ironic way that I hope both mirrored and undercut his position. If you got from it that the relevance/irrelevance binary is a false dichotomy of experience, and that the result is nonetheless money, then you got what I was aiming for. But I don’t know why you seem to think that I should have been the one to deliver a comment in the way you wanted it delivered. Isn’t that your job?

Which leads me to a second point: what my blog is. Notice, if you will, the title: Thinking Again. The blog is hardly a reflection of everything I do. I’m also publishing essays, reviews, poems, stories, and doing serious revisions on a novel I have coming out in 2010. I’m attending conferences, participating in discussions, teaching classes, and giving readings. The blog, like my other writing, is its own discrete project. Like with many of my projects, it develops out of a particular relation between structure and content. On the blog, I often think through what I take to be issues that need further consideration, often and especially ones around which discourse has calcified into the cliches of poetic, cultural and political debate that I believe people, including myself, need to think through and past. I ask questions and try to find out things I don’t know and encourage discussion and sometimes even get some. I don’t want my blog to be another blog where people (and of course, mainly men) assert questionable half-truths in the expected “I know and they suck” format. I don’t think we’re suffering from any shortage of that approach. Do you?

On September 20, Nick Piombino wrote a fascinating blog post asserting his final annoyance with the sword-wielding male hysteria blogosphere (that’s my phrase, not his). In that post, he said that he felt that debates about schools of poetics, although it had been important for awhile, had nothing of value to say anymore and it was time to be done with it. I don’t entirely agree with his conclusions, although I share his frustration. But debate is an element of discussion, and at times can be a worthy one, even now, although the naturalness with which many men assume that it’s the only way to speak is tiresome. But I was also struck—and I don’t mean this as any huge criticism of his few casual blog paragraphs—that the structure of his post shared many of the “I assert and they suck” elements that it was critiquing. My goal, in Thinking Again, is to lead by example, not accusation, in exploring other ways to think and write critically (and Nick’s books by the way, especially Theoretical Objects, have been some of my main influences on how to do that). And I have to admit it’s disheartening to try to avoid cliches and be told, “Hey, your blog is irritating because it doesn’t repeat the cliches I’m used to.” Things like that happen all the time, of course. A common example occurs in my creative writing classes, where you can be sure that most of the students will dislike the best student line of any day. So I think you need to reconsider the limited perspective that suggests that people are only saying something definitive and important if they do it in conventional assertive language.

Of course, what’s equally surprising to me is that you don’t seem to know how much conventional male head-butting and stance-taking I do. I’ve made all sorts of points on my blog about what I think of as important issues in culture and poetics. I haven’t written as much recently about poetics as I would like, but that’s because I’m busy teaching and helping develop a creative writing program at my university and sadly don’t have much time for reading theory and poetics. But it’s also because in the weeks leading up to the election, I made a conscious decision to write about political/cultural issues that I felt were of some importance and that offered something other than the usual liberal worrying about Republicans.

Besides, I’m not sure you’re reading the blogosphere as thoroughly as you think. I’ve had, in the last few months, a good round of head-butting on Stan Apps’ blog with Joshua Clover, whose idea of the “totality” is to my mind a will-to-power political obfuscation, though it can have its uses. I’ve had any number of back and forth disagreements with Johannes Goransson, whose blog I enjoy very much, and on the Harriet blog I’ve several times questioned Linh Dinh and Mark Nowak on some of the excesses of their usually fine thinking. I participate in a music discussion blog in which men insulting men over very detailed points about the history of music is the accepted order of business, to the tune of a hundred comments a day sometimes, and I do just fine. So I don’t think I need any lessons in how to assert myself in a conventional male way, and I certainly don’t need them from someone who doesn’t have his own blog and therefore doesn’t have to make decisions about how to write in public on it. It’s pretty astonishing that someone who asserts himself so rarely in these public discussion forums should accuse me of not asserting myself when I feel sometimes that I’m doing it constantly.

But just in case you still think I’m avoiding some poetics issue, here goes. First, have you read my essay on Kasey’s Deer Head Nation? If not, I’ll help you get a copy. On the current question, I think the Kasey-Kenny Flarf/Conceptual debates are only half serious, although at times that half is quite serious. I myself don’t see any hugely important differences about which I feel that “taking a stance” is essential. Flarf is looser, less absolutely methodical, more flexible to poetic game-playing in the moment of composition, while Kenny’s idea of the conceptual (and there are many other ideas) is more stark and tight, although both involve numerous levels of artifice and authorial intervention. Loose or tight compositional methods; now there’s a distinction that I personally can’t get that worked up about. I suppose my own tendency is towards the loose, but I can’t see any essential value in sticking a right/wrong distinction on the problem or imagining that either approach is going to save the world, or the world of poetry, from anything, or ruin it either for that matter. I think Kasey’s Deer Head Nation is a great book, probably the best single book out of the flarf collective (that assertive enough for you?) while I think a number of the other flarf writers are putting out work I like a lot. Nada, Gary, and Drew are the ones whose work I know best. Nada, I think, is at work on an interconnected project extending beyond the individual book that I, at the distance from it that I am, am only beginning to understand. I like Kasey’s new Breathalyzer less than Deer Head, though it’s a strong, tightly wrought collection, and often hilarious. It seems to corral a little more tightly what he has elsewhere called “the messiness of the results,” and resolve a little more thoroughly into a voice, and I’m not sure that the range of cultural issues it raises is quite as impressive. Kenny’s work comes alive best through performance and not in book format. Most of his books tend to have that “first thought/last thought” element of conceptual writing: grasp the concept and move on without getting too involved in the words themselves. But he’s the most successfully professional performer of his work that we’ve currently got going in the avant context (and I use “professional” here purposefully, with awareness of its positive and negative elements), and his performances can be amazing. I’m less enthusiastic about his theorizing, which strikes me as (on purpose on his part, I know) one dimensional and flat, though his recent posts on Harriet have been really funny.

Thanks also for reading my book. I don’t necessarily feel that it’s in good taste to debate somebody else’s take on one of my own books, but you seem to want assertive bluntness and so I’m going to take the issue on. Your reading of Felonies of Illusion is unsurprising. In fact it’s exactly what I would have expected you to think, and furthermore it’s a reaction that the book is specifically designed to elicit from those unwilling to challenge their own assumptions. I know you prefer an old school sixties assertive leftist reportage (“realist?” I actually don’t think so) that to my mind takes little account of the limitations of the constructions of language that it uses, and I can’t tell whether you know why some people might find moral didacticism both dull and not really capable of handling some of the complexities of the world we live in. You may more or less think the whole phenomena of language poetry was a mistaken sidestep. On the other hand, some of the more purely language poet/poststucturalist theorist people might find the descriptive minimalism of my book’s first long poem too visceral or imagistic, or something like that which I can imagine Bruce Andrews complaining about. For myself, though, I find value in both approaches, depending on the circumstances, and furthermore the goal in the book is to collide the two approaches against each other in a jarring way. Of course neither the imagistic or the anti-representational sections are pure in either their approach or their opposition to each other, since the first set of poems also concern how “the clear image” evaporates in our political climate and the second set how emotion and a sense of loss can come not only through image but through connotation. In any case, you’re welcome to prefer the part of the book that appeals to the values you favor. For me, the frustration created by the difference between the two sections contributes to making it a genuinely avant garde book, one designed to make all lovers of singular approaches sorely annoyed. I think it’s as avant garde as what Kasey and Kenny are doing, and I wrote every word of it with my own two hands. But again, I understand that trying to talk people into liking your own book, especially if it wants them to think against their own grain, is unlikely to work. And obviously I can’t rule out that maybe those poems do suck, although other people have seemed to like them.

It’s uncomfortable to begin a dialogue under the sign of an accusation. While frankly you’re right that I don’t have any responsibility to answer to your concerns, I’m glad enough to take them on. It gives me something to do with what little spare time I have. Besides, the degree to which you don’t appear to understand what I’m up to seems to call for an explanation. You’re welcome to like what I’m trying to do or not, but please try a little harder to understand what I actually am up to before deciding that I should do things in a way that would better appeal to you.

It could be, at a certain point in time, that I’ll feel done with the Thinking Again approach. Although I’m not at all saying that it’s your letter that did it, I have to thank you, quite seriously, for giving me through this discussion a new idea, a blog called Asserting Again, in which I simply cast my own half-thought assumptions out on the world without either considering the evidence or bothering to think through why I think them. I really do mean it: I like this new blog idea. But I’ll have to figure out a way to do that that’s not exactly like what we already have.

There’s a lot more that’s worth saying, particularly on the issue of what it means to commit to practices of poetry and poetics and poetry communities, for which I feel like I’ve done a fair amount. But maybe, for now, I’ll throw that as a question to you and to any readers who may have gotten all this way. I’d like to hear more about what you mean by commitment in this context, and I’d like to know more about why you think “taking a stance” will lead to it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mark Wallace Never Commits Himself? You Be The Judge

This post is going to be the first in a series between Joe Safdie and me, each one of us trading off responses, with Joe going first. Please join us by commenting if you're so inclined.


Joe writes:

"Last night, while on an occasional and sporadic journey through several blogs I've bookmarked, I came across a post of Kenny Goldsmith's on *Harriet* -- not really a "post," it showed the picture of a dollar bill crumpled up so that the words "United States of America" read "Tits of America" -- the caption underneath it was "Flarf"; underneath that, the same dollar bill was elongated to its normal length -- the caption underneath that was "Conceptual Poetry".

My immediate reaction, after laughing, was to commend its brilliance. But before posting that to Harriet, I saw a comment that had already been posted from Mark Wallace, who's become a friend since we both moved to San Diego four years ago. Mark wrote: "Very relevant, in a way that sits right at the relevant/irrelevant nexus in an irrelevant way that's somehow relevant. And the other way too, of course, and not quite. Show me the money."

I interpreted this post of Mark's as similar to some recent posts he's made on his own blog, as well as comments to others' -- as an indication that he was somehow avoiding taking a stand, one way or the other -- and that this was irritating. So instead of posting to Harriet, I wrote him an e-mail:

Mark . . .

Hi. Too long a time for neighbors.

But listen . . . I now monitor the blogs, including yours, and I can't help but notice that you NEVER seem to take a stand about anything . . . I mean, really! You're obviously a very talented writer, certainly enough to present an engaging paragraph or three, but you never state any *poetic* opinions -- I mean, I take it back, you did urge your readers to vote for Obama, but you never seem to go out on a limb and COMMIT yourself to anything, in any of your blog posts, in any of your comments on other people's blogs -- and for this reader, it gets irritating after awhile. You categorize and classify quite well, but even when presented with an engaging choice like this latest one from Kenny, you just seem to weasel out.

Since I never want to be like Pierre Menard, I'll say that I thought Kenny's post was pretty brilliant, and that I'll take the elongated dollar bill every time . . . "realism" . . . for all the post-structuralist-modernist critiques that can ever be marshaled against it. But for what it's worth (probably not much), I really did want to register this deeply-felt critique -- for me, the second half of your latest book was forgettable -- while the first had real possibilities.

I'm never gonna be part of the echelon, partner, but I did want to register this personal critique -- which, of course, you should feel free to ignore.



P.S. I just got tenure -- you too, right?"

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Literary Magazines??? and The Capilano Review

I don’t think I’ve ever had my writing published before in a Canadian literary magazine, and that’s why it’s an extra pleasure to have some of my poems out in the latest issue of The Capilano Review. But there’s a lot of other excellent work in the issue as well.

Anybody have any thoughts on the state of the literary magazine relative to avant/experimental/innovative poetry these days? Is all going well, with the addition of many web magazines that can reach a broad readership when there’s a readership to reach? Is the print journal dead or withering or doing just fine? Has the increase in fuzzy middle ground poetry completely blurred the distinction between what is or isn’t avant literature, or between what is or isn’t a journal devoted to that literature? To what extent do you read literary magazines at all when there are so many other ways to get a poetry fix? Has the post-Ron Silliman blog discussion universe changed the value of the lit magazine? These days I live too far outside most of the larger urban avant poetry communities to know how much of a role literary magazines are playing in any of them in the last few years, although small press publication in Los Angeles has been an important factor in my recent reading. Who reads any of the magazines that are out there, if they’re out there, and what magazines do you read, if any?

In any case, some of the highlights of the fall 2008 issue of The Capilano Review:

–An interview of Louis Cabri by Roger Farr, featuring among other things a discussion of the relationship between poems and commodities, as well as a discussion of procedural elements in contemporary writing. Cabri and Farr are both excellent poets and theorists, and while the interview may not be raising particularly new subjects, their discussion of some well-known problems in poetics is very informative, with many references to useful other texts. The interview is followed by a set of new and worthwhile poems from Cabri.

–Roman Korec’s poem “Ode To a Plastic Shopping Bag” is an entertaining novelty number which in a light fashion explores the problem of the commodity fetish and the detritus of its plastic side effects. I wonder if this piece might be best performed.

–Some color paintings by Damian Moppett, and an interview of Moppett by Sharla Sava. I was intrigued to discover Moppett’s work, and the interview taught me a lot about the visual arts in Vancouver.

Sina Queryas’ poem “The Endless Path of the New.” A poem in four parts with wide historical reference and a bold use of line with inventive rhythmic variation.

Andrea Actis’ poem “choose your toast & publish post” may be my favorite piece in this issue. The poem weaves several simultaneous and reoccurring strands: pop culture, politics, feminism, the life of post-post-post young women. Consistently funny, lively, insightful.

M.W. Miller, “A Far West Commentary on the Diamond Sutra.” A rollicking new adventure in the life of the Excluded Middle. What is it about writing that takes literary or theoretical concepts and turns them into characters that I find so pleasurable? Or is it just that Miller does that here in a funny and thoughtful way.

And now, back to grading all those final projects.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Anticipation is Sweet: the MLA Pre-Season

I won’t be at MLA this year, and I won’t feel sorry to miss it either. Of course being in the Bay Area over the holiday season can be nice, and I’ll be sorry not to see a number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but there will be other occasions for that. As for the rest of MLA? I’ll be happy to be far away from it.

For those who are going, particularly those looking for jobs, the MLA Pre-Season is now officially underway. I date the official Pre-Season not from the moment of beginning to send out letters in late September (that’s still just warm-ups) but from the time when phone calls for interviews actually start, at which point people can legitimately begin waiting for phone calls about interviews, although they have likely been waiting for some time already. There is also much sending of last minute dossiers and writing samples, followed by actually getting phone calls and setting up interview times... well, maybe. And there’s also hearing news about other people getting interviews or not getting interviews. The MLA Pre-Season Information Mill is fantastic for encouraging those special feelings of low self-worth, financial desperation and competitive rage.

If little in the world of literature is quite as annoying as actually being at MLA, the MLA Pre-Season comes close. Ah, the anticipation before the event itself is sweet, like the aroma of hemlock before one takes that heady first sip.

In my experience, MLA job interview phone calls can start right after Thanksgiving and can continue right on up to the week before Christmas, which this year will be Friday December 19. Maybe once I had a call in the weekend of Christmas itself, a last minute, harried call from a school whose interview process was quickly heading out of control. Those phone calls are fun. Being phoned by people who don’t sound like they know what they’re doing is a very important MLA Pre-Season experience.

Sooner or later, many people have a MLA Pre-Season Horror Story, or at least a Great Tale of Confusion and Annoyance. Like, for instance, a search committee making calls not just to you and your official references, but to random other people as well, picked for reasons that are unclear and before you’ve even been interviewed.

On one occasion, sitting in my office between classes, I received a phone call from a professor at a university I’ve now forgotten. Thinking this was a set-up call for an interview, I talked to her for awhile. She really liked my job letter, she said, and was interested in discussing my teaching with me. We had a nice chat. But no, she wasn’t calling to set up an interview, nor did the school she worked for ever call me after that. What was she doing, I’ve often wondered since. MLA Pre-Season underground Subvert The Search Committee activities? Or was she just bored and looking for people to talk to?

Sooner or later though—I mean sometimes, for some people—one actually does get a few interviews set up. Some years I had none, some years three, five, one, eight, an average of about 2.7 interviews a year over a ten-year period. And then, the interview arranged, it’s homework scramble time. What school is this? Who works there? What kind of program do they have? Where on the map is it located? How much does it cost to live there? What do people there do for fun on a Saturday night? Then the taking of notes, the printing out of sample syllabi, the listing of names of writers and books to mention and not mention.

One can do the homework and be prepared, at least in some ways, but speculating is pointless. Why were they calling, really? How high up am I on that pre-season list that may or may not exist? Am I the token experimental poet (note: insert your own token status here) candidate, the interview-a writer-like-this-so we-can-say-we-did candidate? Does it actually matter if I make a good impression or do they already know who they want? If I appear like I know what I’m doing, will I look insufficiently malleable, insufficiently prepared to be told what to do by current faculty members? No matter how much speculating you do, you’ll never have answers to any of these questions.

Of course, the fact that speculating is pointless hardly makes it less inevitable. Guessing is a direct function of Job Search Committee Secrecy, that moment in the Job Committee and in the department when everybody agrees that nobody outside the department can be told what’s going on until the official moment for telling. The candidate probably knows that every department is different, that departments are political, that people disagree and sometimes deeply don’t like each other, that some of them certainly have Axes-to-Grind or Agendas-to-Pursue. But what the specific fabric is of those long term festering problems is something the candidate is likely never to know, not before the interview, not during, and not after. Unless the candidate gets hired of course, in which case those problems will come to the door soon enough.

No, the best thing the candidate can do in the MLA Pre-Season is take the necessary official steps, study up, and try not to worry about it too constantly. Or if not worrying too constantly proves impossible, take up some bad habit that can lead to temporary stress relief: bickering with friends and loved ones, criticizing other people pleasurably and needlessly, issuing Pompous Moral Judgments about the nature of the profession, the country, or the world, all of it perhaps over one too many drinks, or many too many, amid peals of overly frenetic laughter that suggest that nothing you’re saying is really funny. Or try to channel it more healthily if you can: run more often, do more Yoga, drink more smoothies, finally get that psychotherapy you’ve been putting off for years.

I haven’t looked much at the job listings in Creative Writing this year, but given the financial state of the country at the moment, I can’t imagine it’s all that great a year to be out on the San Francisco pavement, hat in hand, carrying a placard reading “Will Teach Poem Writing for Food.” The Cal State system, one of the more consistent sources of Creative Writing positions in recent years, including my own, is having a financial crisis and isn’t hiring, and many other state systems are probably in a similar condition. I wonder, when it gets right down to it, how many advertised jobs will ultimately have their funding withdrawn. And it’s hard to know anything about the relation between this year and years to come. The good news is students always want more Creative Writing classes. The bad news may be that class sizes in Creative Writing are small, which takes away in some cases from the cash cow it might otherwise be.

To those of you currently on the market, my best wishes go with you, just like people wished me well, repeatedly, during my ten years of MLA Pre-Season. Of course, if wishes were horses... and so forth and so on. Remember, part of the point of wishing you well is that I can’t be of much actual help.

And remember too that if nothing pans out this MLA season, there is always the MLA Post-Season, the late coming spring jobs and etc. Don’t think about the Post-Season too much though, because then you may realize that the MLA Season, all told, really runs September to May, and you may at that point start telling yourself things like MLA = Life. It could be a Borges story: “The world is nothing more than an infinite MLA.” No, don’t think like that. It’s not true and it can’t help. I know from experience.